Written by Megiddo Sel Esdraelon
Full disclosure (and probably no news to most of you), but I am far from an expert practitioner. I have spent much of the last 20 years or so training with much of what was considered the "top" talent in Texas, specifically the Austin Torches and the Houston Rogues. My formative years were largely with the Rogue-style schools- specifically with Spyn, Shadow, and Arg - and my recent training has been with the Torches, particularly at the "Dojo" with Dalos, Drakknar, Arthon, and Sponge. There was some interim training with Sir Glen, who was accelerating up the curve at a rapid rate for the couple of years we trained together. Until recently, I would place my skill level as "below" or "far below" average; recently, I would say it is above average. In particular, I have had a lot of exposure to style, mechanics, and philosophy - even if this has not directly translated into personal skill. You can consider me an amateur and well-informed critic, even if I am not a master practitioner myself.
Of interest to me in this article is what I have seen as a change in general philosophy around the mechanical and methodological nature of Amtgard combat. In general, this can be summed up as a change from attack mechanics, speed, and dextrous misdirection to opponent reading (analysis), early-motion reading, range control and timing, and footwork. The basic gist of this shift is, if you know what your opponent will do and can do, and you can simply place yourself in an advantageous position at the right time, any simple chop will end the fight. Gregarious shot motions are unnecessary, and often the sign of an amateur, even if it is a successful amateur. This is why many competitors who show early promise are considered “unskilled” even though their apparent win-rate is significantly higher than average; the lack of methodological basis will become an intractable wall when facing top-end skilled talent. Advanced reading skills differentiate those who are merely fast from those who create a bewildering or confusing fight sequence and prevail with a high degree of regularity against virtually all opponents.
Hand Speed - stimulus response time and kinetic speed (how long you take to respond to input, and how quickly you move to respond). In general, the lower the response time and faster the kinetic speed, the better the outcome.
Shot Selection - the raw variety of memorized motions available to the fighter. Chops, wrap shots, flat wraps, and the bevy of other specialized shots and motions available to a fighter.
Weapon Misdirection - feints, including weapon and body feints. This could include baits, but usually obvious baits of availability, as opposed to range control and positioning baits.
Attack mechanics, speed, and dextrous misdirection were mainstays of Amtgard combat when I began in the mid- to late 90s. Basically, what I am describing here are the variety of "wrap shots" and weapon dimensions developed heterogeneously around the nation - Rogue wraps, Torch wraps, skyhooks, scorpion shots, lassoing shots, long swords, and all the other severe misdirection constructions which serve to confuse your opponent while overcoming flat conic defenses. Similarly, longer, lighter weapons with significantly increased staccato and rhythm speed began to dominate at this time, including the rise of "speed poles" and other weapons which could bring "unrealistic" combat speeds to Amtgard. It is important to note that is the use of rapid redirection in Amtgard which is unrealistic, not the angular velocity of the shots themselves, as is commonly misunderstood. I distinctly remember the "secret of the wrap shot" being a point of contention in my first year of Amtgard. Of course, at that time, no one would really teach their combat secrets, so even getting instruction on such things was difficult (the resulting bifurcation in wrap shot styles still prevails, with no clearly dominant style). Of course, the real secret was that I didn't have the forearm strength to throw a wrap show with a 48" PVC sword covered in 3" of pipe insulation and duct-tape, but even with the ready advent of golf clubs and funnoodle, the use of such a mechanic would elude me. More bewildering was that by the time I had mastered it, the shot had largely become irrelevant as a key piece of top-end skill, as are virtually all single pieces of mechanical skill.
The heavy use of fast, highly obtuse of mechanical motions of the late 90s heavily favored those who were young, limber, fast, and strong. Height, as always, played a key role, but I suspect the physical advantage to greater reach was more significant during the 90s - I was insufficiently skilled to know for sure. Shot mechanics during the funnoodle era quickly wore out and injured some of the best fighters, and I would surmise that many great fighters, and even more that never quite made it, had careers cut short by these combat mechanics. If you started well before the mid-90s, the heavier weapons typically instilled better physical mechanics which helped to ameliorate injury in the move to funnoodle; if you started in the late 90s or early 2000s, your chance for serious repetitive injury was probably at the game's maximum level. On the other hand, a modicum of physical advantage, and a willingness to train harder could result in a significant rise above the curve in relatively short order.
I believe the major shift in methodology and mechanics occurred in the early 2010s with general exit of several dominant fighters of the 2000s; this shift moved the methodological meta from raw mechanical advantage to a much more nuanced philosophy of combat control. Of course, many of the top fighters were doing this all along - even those who gained dominance in the late 80s and early 90s. There was, in my mind, a concurrent thread during the prior decade in which these fighters also honed their training skills. Much of the improvement in training methods is directly owed to SKBC as a platform for encouraging openness in training. In truth, those trainers may not have even been aware of the types of top-end skillset they were leveraging, or were incapable of explaining this in any sort of structured way to newer fighters until relatively recently (and many of them are still not capable of transmitting this information successfully). This resulted in a heavy reliance on face-to-face training—which still dominates this sport, as well as all martial arts. In the late 90s through the early 2010s, if a new fighter had the aptitude to read and execute the advanced methods, they would then subsequently become advanced fighters themselves. Conversely, as training methods and philosophy have improved, so has the general skill level of "mid level" fighters.
It is notable that much of our top-end talent has managed to stay relevant for multiple decades, and even new advanced fighters are increasingly older. Top-level talent in the late 90s was considered to be the domain of teenagers and those who could keep their elbows into their early 20s. In the last few years, we have seen several dominant fighters in the 30s and 40s, and even "new" top talent in the post-40 range. This has been a result, I believe, from a shift in pure mechanical advantage to much more advanced reading and control methods of fighting. There has also been a considerable uptick in active athletic training, that is, going to the gym for specific strength and endurance training. This type of focused piecewise athletic training has become more important to total development of fighting, as I will address later.
The new paradigm is to read and classify an opponent prior to a fight, then use a combination of set-up reads (early motion reading), range control and timing to dominate a fight. The result has been that the perception of fights for relatively unskilled fighters against top-end talent has shifted from a noticeable delta in speed and misdirection to simple bewilderment. It is often noted that many top-end fighters no longer seem significantly faster (or faster at all) than their opponents when watched externally, and yet from within the fight, the task of tracking them becomes nearly impossible.
Opponent Reading (analysis) - determining likely modes of attack and defense; known and suspected patterns of attack and defense, and weapon and defense capabilities. It is important for fighters to be able to winnow the flow of options in a fight as early as possible. Opponent analysis is the method by which fighters recognize fight patterns in other fighters, and exploit them.
Footwork - the key element to footwork is less in dynamic shot-motion in combat (which is really more important as a function of shot mechanics and selection), and more important as a source of passive defense and positioning. Much of the perceived passive defense of top-tier fighters actually originates in their feet (they are never quite where you believe they were); additionally, their ability to bring a wide variety of shot options to bear is position-dependent on countering the passive and active defenses of their opponents.
Timing and Range Control - all fighters have preferred engagement ranges and timing for setups and shot production; controlling range and timing is a key factor in determining shot selection and passive and active defense. When fighters discuss “controlling a fight”, this and footwork positioning are key elements.
Early Reading - this is the ability to read an opponent shots just prior to accelerated motion, including feints and baits. Due to the raw speed of combat at point-blank-range, this reading ability is key to in-game volleys, offense and active defense.
It is important to note that the combat speed of Amtgard far surpasses the conscious reading speed of the human visual cortex. Even the early visual cognitive stages cannot possibly read complete motions of weapons, body, and limbs in real-time. At best, it is inferred from gross motions and then recalled later from a more-or-less accurate internal model of combat. This is in general why there is so much bad shot-calling (by participants and reeves alike). The only way to read a fight is to run it at a fraction of full speed from a recording, which then introduces significant issues around parallax. For instance, a typical Amtgarder is probably more than capable of swing at 60+ MPH at the "sweet spot" of a sword; the typical short sword is traversing the shot distance from initiator to the target in the sub 100ms range. That is literally faster than the blink of an eye, and is twice the speed of stimulus-to-response time for the human saccade speed [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saccade] (that is, the shot has landed by the time that even the earliest stages of subconscious visual systems have fully engaged an unprepped visual system). In truth, all in-combat reading occurs at only the earliest stages of motion, prior to the bulk of accelerated arm motion. Dominant fighters are capable of reading and responding to the "intent of motion" with a much greater degree of success than other fighters, by directing high-speed lower-level response mechanisms towards more crucial areas of interest in a fight. New and mid-level fighters simply don’t even know where to look, or what to look for.
Additionally, top-end fighters read combat staging prior to the onset of any fast-response stimulus, and create spacing and angling which promotes good outcomes well before actual combat is initiated. All of this early stage pattern-matching can be taught (hence the reliance on block-strike and other training tools by some schools). Getting "in the zone" for most fighters is really the art of quieting the consciousness and letting the high-speed reaction centers of the brainstem do the heavy lifting. Truly top-end fighters leverage these high-speed reaction centers (which have response times as low as 30ms) more economically by creating an environment in which they can dominate before the fight has occurred. Mid-level and lower fighters are hoping to compete once the fight has already commenced, and are relegated to relying on neurological tools which operate at the 200+ms range and in the worst case, the neocortex, with response rates in the 700+ms time (worse than 1/20th the speed of brain stem responses).
The advancement in fighting mechanics has then been a shift from wild, fast, and obtuse mechanical actions, to simultaneous use of higher-orders of combat cognition paired with the lowest levels of the brainstem fast-response mechanisms. The top-end fighters are training to create an environment in which they can bring the most effective high-speed-pattern-matching skills to bear more often and earlier than their opponents. As mentioned, these skills are opponent style reading (analysis), footwork and positioning, range control and timing, and early-reading mechanisms (reading intent). The particulars of the win condition (wrap shot, chop, spin shot, etc) are really just flavor. The fight is won in the setup stages, and through effective execution of motions learned by rote training.
It should be obvious then, that is has become more important than ever to identify and train in a productive manner. Because the modern paired cognitive combat methods are significantly more complicated than the old style of “faster is better”; there is a significant investment of a fighter’s time in the acquisition of skill, and if that investment is made in the wrong way, it will be a serious impediment to a fighter’s progress, which may take years to correct.
As a general rule, the areas of combat which I believe are most productive (and have become dominant in combat practice) are in opponent reading (opponent analysis), footwork, timing and range control, and early-reading practice. If you are currently training, and focusing on hand-speed (excessive bag work) and shot mechanics (various wrap shots, trick shots, etc), then you may be over-training on areas of the sport which are not necessarily productive precursors to top-end skill. For instance, while block-strike is a good training tool for learning some types of early opponent shot reading, overtraining on block-strike can lead to readily recognizable timing and patterns-of-motion that can be exploited by superior (and sometimes inferior) competitors. When you are training with partners or superior fighters, you should be working on holistic methods that encourage dominance of a fight prior to full-speed engagement. You should focus on training regimens which encourage early-reading skills, reading setups, and reading style (analysis). This includes range, alignment, body and limb placement, shot availability (especially for shots which are not readily visible prior to engagement, or are not visible at any time during an engagement), and opportunities of attack and defense. For instance, many top-end fighters are capable of reading the “win condition” of a fight they are watching between two competitors just prior to engagement. This skill can be taught (verbally and by example) and practiced, and should be.
So where is fighting methodology transitioning from here? I’m not sure on the specific mechanics, although I feel that is become increasingly irrelevant. I have no real aptitude for physical sports, so I will have to leave the details up to those that do. I would contend that there has a been a significant and permanent shift in meta-analysis and combat philosophy; I do not think there were will be further significant shifts in performance in the future—that is, I believe our top-end fighters are now often competing within a large proportion of their full neurological and mechanical capacity. I believe there is obvious room for improvement in the quality of the fighters; clearly, we are not subjected to a regular spate of olympians in our sport or nearby sports, but I don’t think those people would be using significantly more advanced combat tools than are already available to our current top-end talent. They may process faster neurologically, operate faster mechanically, or master the various pre-volley and in-combat reading skills to a higher degree, but I do not think there will be another significant shift in methodological approach by students.
That being said, I still believe there is significant room for advancement among our trainers. As our top-end branches out to other more established martial arts, I believe we will see significant improvements in the broad application of advanced and well-structured instruction and I believe this process may engage our current top talent for the next several decades.